A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.

Intellectual Hubris

For reading alongside Pierre Hadot’s texts, I recommend Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living, which has similar concerns about how to practise a philosophical life, rather than casually reading philosophy for intellectual pleasure or posture. In a brilliant pair of chapters about Platonic and Socratic irony, he quotes Muecke (below), a couple of sentences that capture so concisely the hubris of many (contemporary) politicians and intellectuals (pseudo):

The typical victim of an ironic situation is essentially an innocent. Irony regards assumptions as presumption and therefore innocence as guilt. Simple ignorance is safe from irony, but ignorance compounded with the least degree of confidence counts as intellectual hubris and is a punishable offence.

DC Muecke
The Compass of Irony

A Philosophical Attitude

Gill001

Like Einstein I disassociate myself from the atheist tag, partly because I prefer an “attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” But also to distance myself completely from the fundamental atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et al.) who declaim their untestable (on both sides) hypothesis at very opportunity.

During the Middle Ages everything changes, because philosophy is no longer merely religion’s servant. As soon as philosophy frees itself from a theology, it becomes a critique, either purifying or destroying, of religion. Philosophers-Spinoza no less than Kant, for example-have always had a tendency to purify the idea of God and detach it from properly religious representations. It seems to me that what has been called natural religion is merely a theistic philosophy. As such, it lacks what is essential in religion: rites. Now, I recognise that by defining religion in this way, I oppose a rather general use of the word, namely, to speak of God, transcendence, or mystery. I have observed the fact in Thomas Mann, who in a letter remarks, “We live and we die in mystery, and one can, if one wishes, qualify the consciousness we have of it as religious.” Similarly, Einstein spoke of the scientific religiosity and the cosmic religion of his own position, which he expresses by reporting, “I have the strongest emotion in front of the mystery of life,” while refusing a God who rewards and punishes. In his inaugural lecture, Merleau-Ponty said roughly the same thing as Thomas Mann and Einstein, but was careful to specify that this is a philosophical attitude: “Philosophy awakens us to what is problematic in itself in the existence of the world and our own existence, to the point that we are never healed from searching, as Bergson would say, for a solution ‘in the master’s book.” This is a philosophical attitude that Merleau-Ponty refuses to qualify as atheist, because it merely consists of displacing the sacred or defining it in another way.

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Authenticity and Semiconsciousness

Three Worlds - MC Escher (1955)
Three Worlds – MC Escher (1955)

This “authenticity,” also tackled by Derrida, inspired by Aristotle and Heidegger, is a central preoccupation. Is it possible to stay in this state always? If so, how?

[..] I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life-which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.”

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

Discovering Pierre Hadot

Discovering Pierre Hadot feels important to me. Too often with philosophy I feel these writers and thinkers are engaged in discourse for the sake of discourse, empty posturing. With Hadot there is a purpose to the philosophy, beyond the love of wisdom, a sense that one can and should use philosophy to change life, to seek out a life with less anxiety, more contentment. It is strange how when reading, though one drifts languidly this way and that, when viewed from sufficient perspective, a definite and deliberate trajectory can be seen.